Sunday, November 15, 2009

In Defense of Stephen King

My review of Stephen King's "Under the Dome" ran in today's Chronicle, and it was not 100% positive. The book's too long and filled with too-familiar characters and situations. On a "weird doings in Maine" scale from the atrocious "The Tommyknockers" to the sublime "'Salem's Lot," I place it squarely in the middle. I enjoyed it well enough but will never be tempted to read it again.

My review prompted a reader to write and inquire about my opinion on why King has become a "literary darling." My correspondent threw around the words "hack" and "onanistic."

Stephen King is probably my favorite living writer. There are others whom I admire more and who have disappointed me less, but I can't imagine a time will ever come when a new King novel arrives and I'll just shrug and put it aside. I was imprinted on his prose too forcefully, at too early an age, to ignore what he offers.

I clearly remember sitting on our back porch in Portsmouth, NH, one summer day and reading a library copy of "'Salem's Lot." I was maybe 15, and I had no idea what the book was about. Not a clue, because the jack copy didn't give it away. The frisson I experienced in the instant when I suddenly realized that it was about vampires in Maine, set little more than an hour north of where I sat, remains one of the most delicious thrills I've ever enjoyed as a reader.

In quick succession, I read "The Shining," "Carrie," "The Stand" and "Night Shift," and I was hooked for good. I met him face-to-face at a signing for "Firestarter" at the Portland Mall and attended a press conference with him in Santa Cruz, when he was touring for "Insomnia" via motorcycle. One of my regrets is that I've never been able to arrange a one-on-one interview with him. I tried with "Under the Dome," but he's not coming to the Bay Area. So, sorry, Charlie.

"Hack" is one of those dangerous words like "nymphomaniac," used to judge people who give or get more than we think is proper. Whatever he may be, King is not a hack; he clearly cares about language, about his readers, about his characters, about the fate of the novel and the short story. Few critics recognize how experimental a lot of his work is, how willing he is to set new challenges for himself. He can be clumsy, sloppy, distracted and too in love with his own voice, but there's no doubt he means what he says.

At The Chronicle, I've reviewed at least 20 of King's books -- many good, many not -- during the past 25 years. I imagine I'll keep doing so as long as he, the newspaper and I are all still functioning.


Scott Sigler said...

The King haters used to be out in far greater force in the 90s, but the fact is he's outlived many of them. It's interesting you don't hear as much King-bashing as you used to -- simply because he continues to crank out books that people like to buy and read.

I think he still draws the meanies because he's not trying to prove how "important" his work is, he's not trying to "capture what it means to be human" or any such effort to demonstrate how smart and insightful he is. King just tells great stories. For the frustrated English Literature majors and MFAs of the world, that just pisses them off.

King's use of character and his willingness to kill any character at any time anchors his mastery of suspense. You're on the edge of your seat because you never really know who will make it. Spare me the allegory and the life lessons, just keep me guessing until the end. King continues to be the primary influence on my work as a horror author. The guy is phenomenal at what he does

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Soozcat said...

I strongly suspect King's reputation, like that of Dickens before him, will be vindicated posthumously. I don't always like the stories he writes, but I can't fault his skill as a storyteller. And I can't help thinking that most of the writers who dislike him are dealing with jealousy issues; they would be ecstatic to experience his level of success.